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County opens talks with developer on novel mixed-use project

Wednesday, June 29, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County has found the developer it wants to work with on a project in North Austin that has little precedent.

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted 4-0 to direct staff to begin negotiations with DMA Development Company LLC on a partnership to transform 3 acres of county-owned land into a mixed-use office and residential project. Commissioner Margaret Gomez was off the dais.

“This is probably the first time the county has entered into this kind of public-private partnership on county land to generate affordable housing in addition to meeting county office needs,” Commissioner Brigid Shea pointed out after the vote.

The project will replace what is currently an empty parking lot at 5325 and 5335 Airport Blvd. The site is part of Travis County’s North Campus, which also includes the County Clerk’s Office and Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office.

The project itself is planned to be the new headquarters of the County Department of Health and Human Services and Veteran Services, whose offices are currently in the Palm School building at Interstate 35 and E. Cesar Chavez Street in downtown Austin.

During Tuesday’s meeting, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt revealed during a discussion on an unrelated item that the county’s vision for the North Campus project includes 146 housing units that would be affordable to residents who make 60 percent of the median family income.

However, in an email, Mark David Gilbert of the Planning and Budget Office walked that number back, saying, “So much is subject to negotiations at this very early point that it is not reliable to provide any specific numbers of housing units or types.”

Gilbert said that the requirements spelled out in the county’s request for proposals, which DMA Development responded to, are binding and include 60,000 square feet of office space, “mixed-income housing, community amenities and supportive parking as well.”

Despite the clear support for the project on the dais, Tuesday’s vote was not without minor controversy. Representatives from of one of the two other development teams that also submitted proposals showed up to request that the court postpone its decision.

“Further, we ask that a transparent approach be maintained and that the scoring matrix based upon the stated objectives be a part of the public process to select the winner,” said Timothy Cone of the NRP Group LLC.

Shouting from the back of the court chamber, County Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes pointed out that the posted backup material on the item contained a version of the scoring matrix. Cone, however, noted that the version was a scaled-down version of the matrix that revealed no specific details about how and why county staff scored different elements of the competing proposals.

Assistant Purchasing Agent Marvin Bryce explained to the court that it is county policy to withhold that information at this stage in the procurement process.

“We want to always protect our negotiation strategy and our negotiation position,” Bryce said.

Shea elaborated on Bryce’s point. “If you are not able to successfully negotiate with the top bidder,” Shea said, “then you go to the second bidder. And given that reality, I think most governmental entities would not wish to share their internal rankings until that whole process is completed.”

No other member of the dais seemed to disagree, and the court moved on to hear from a representative from DMA Development.

“We found the scoring matrix was clear, and we submitted a proposal that was directly in response to that,” Janine Sisak told the court before offering to take questions from the dais.

None were offered, however, and the court proceeded with the vote.

Afterward, Eckhardt said that other county properties have been analyzed for their suitability as similar mixed-use sites that could feature affordable housing components.

“You are likely to see more of these circumstances coming forward to the Commissioners Court,” Eckhardt said. “We’re very happy to have this as our maiden voyage.”

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